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We've Been Here Before...
on 25 May 2013
I actually wasn't going to buy Inferno given how woeful I considered The Lost Symbol to be; however, I received a copy of the book as a gift and plunged in, consuming the book in a matter of a couple of days. Whilst my earlier review of The Lost Symbol was quite positive in terms of what Brown was trying to do, large parts of my criticism of that book also apply here. The novel opens with an amnesiac Langdon waking up in a hospital room after apparently being shot in the head - we're not in Cambridge anymore Toto. I actually consider the opening of the book quite fresh; taking away Langdon's memory proves a successful literary technique for Brown, allowing him to effectively retrace Langdon's footsteps (and his own work in previous novels).
What follows is more of the same types of shenanigans we read about in Brown's previous efforts. There's a biological weapon (Angels & Demons), an assassin tracking Langdon (The Da Vinci Code), a litany of literary/art references (The Da Vinci Code) and a professor who seems far too in control. Part of what I loved about the early Langdon books was that they always showed Langdon as being out of his depth, a humble academic sucked into a situation he doesn't fully understand. He survived and saved the day through using his intellect and his instincts, making him a sort of bookish Indiana Jones. In short, he was a very good hero for the series. You'll note I'm using past tense for this; it's because he now has transformed into caricature. Everyone knows Langdon; museum curators, security guards, the Director of the World Health Organisation; basically wherever Langdon goes, he is known, accommodated, and assisted in his exploits. He isn't a man alone anymore, he's a man with a massive following and this is where the novel descends into the ring of Hell reserved for tired writers who rehash plots (Dante has a place for Brown, several actually, Circles 5, 8, and 9). Moreover, there isn't a building Langdon doesn't know in the novel; he's certainly quite the traveller, so much so that one wonders when he actually has time to write the books he's so famed for...
On the point of symbols, there aren't many. There's no deduction, there's no reasoning, there's just explanation after explanation of art, messages written in text which Langdon also knows all about. Due to the fact Langdon knows it all, and this does get rather annoying after a while, the reader is left with the distinct impression that they've read this novel before. In fact, we have. Several times. Brown's decision to give Langdon amnesia is actually very clever (or manipulative and devious) because it could be argued that the 'been here before' feeling one gets when turning the page is caused by Langdon's feeling of having been here before. However, I actually just think that Brown didn't have anything new to offer us and so he's rehashed old ideas whilst dressing them up as the déjà vu of an amnesiac.
The truly ridiculous part of the novel, however, is the WHO (World Health Organisation). I'm willing to accept that government agencies, global enforcement bodies etc. etc. are willing to consult academics from relevant fields when trying to assess threat levels. I'm willing to accept that such academics are in a privileged position to know things that others do not, thereby allowing them to play a pivotal role in helping avert disaster. What I am not willing to accept however, is that an organisation such as the WHO, or any other organisation for that matter, would entrust the mission of locating a biological weapon of mass destruction to a man who spends his life analysing symbols and obsessing about a Mickey Mouse watch he wears in order to not take himself so seriously. My hopes soared when the timepiece was lost but then, the Director of the WHO found it for him and returned it to his wrist, ready to tell time another day. I eye rolled here.
For me, the moment Langdon utters the words, as he does twice I believe, "It's a matter of life and death!" in the novel, I found myself rolling my eyes again. Langdon is an academic, not a field agent and yet the WHO were concerned when he stopped 'checking in' with them whilst in the field. Why was he in the field? Why are they trusting this man with anything beyond his area of expertise? Why did Dan Brown think this would fly? Oh the questions. Yet again Langdon is the ONLY one who can help. The ONLY one who knows. The ONLY one who can overcome a severe brain injury within hours and spend the rest of the novel running (not recommended as running increases blood pressure and could cause bleeding in the brain - not so for Langdon). In short, Robert Langdon is amazing. Too amazing. The more amazing he becomes, the more ridiculous the books become and, for me, we're really at critical mass in terms of the amazingness of Robert Langdon.
In my review of The Lost Symbol I wrote that Dan Brown has kind of exploited Langdon enough and should consider stopping writing him and move on to pastures new. With this novel, in my view, Dan Brown has made it clear that he should absolutely stop writing the character and move on. There's nothing new Langdon can do without the book either being so ridiculous it is caricature or so boring it becomes unreadable.
A quick word on Dan Brown's writing ability. Critical reviews of the book have focussed on the fact that Dan Brown isn't a tremendous writer. Let's be clear, he's not, but that doesn't matter. Just as a Michael Bay summer blockbuster will never be Citizen Kane, so too will a Dan Brown blockbuster never be able to accomplish the dizzy heights of Dumas, Brontë, Shakespeare or Proust. I don't expect Dan Brown to be an amazing writer because if he was the book would be an effort to read and that isn't what you need or want from a blockbuster. So whilst critics focus on Brown's inability to write brilliantly, I choose to largely ignore that because the book isn't intended to be a literary work of art. The skill is in the story, not the execution; it's just a shame that the story has been told before.
The book isn't bad, hence my three star rating, it's just overdone. Readers would probably get more out of reading The Da Vinci Code than reading the new novel and could actually get away with substituting The Last Supper in The Da Vinci Code and anti-matter in Angels & Demons with Dante's Inferno and still have read the new book; after all, that's essentially what Dan Brown has done in order to write it.